Patent No.: 909554. Date of patent: August 4, 2015. Years from now, historians and academics may look back on this patent number and date as a watershed mark in the evolution of legal cannabis. Feel free to read the 147 pages of the patent documents but, in short, it “leads to many innovations, provides compositions and methods for breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.” It was the first time that the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) had issued a patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC. One USPTO spokesman recently discussed with a journalist that “there are no special statutory requirements or restrictions applied to marijuana plants.” The following is a broad, and I mean really broad, overview of the options available to protect intellectual property within the cannabis species and strain realm.
Generally speaking, to be patent eligible, an invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described in a manner so that people of skill in the relevant specialty can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. In terms of cannabis, essentially the breeder must have created a new and non-obvious strain over what already exists that is useful such as being highly resistant to molds or having a specific concentration of CBD.
Breeders potentially have a number of options available to them, despite the common belief otherwise. In the U.S. there are five types of intellectual property protection that breeders can obtain for new plant varieties or their use of clones:
One may seek protection for seeds and tubers, known as Plant Variety Protection. A tuber is essentially a swelled root that forms a storage organ. The Plant Variety Protection Office provides this protection. To apply for Plant Variety Protection, the applicant submits information to show that the variety is new, distinct, uniform and stable.
For asexually propagated plants except for tubers, a Plant Patent may be sought. These are sought through the USPTO. This is relatively inexpensive compared with a Utility Patent covering the genetics.
Trade secrets are often used to protect inventions that will not be commercially available or cannot be reverse engineered. For example, if a new strain is invented but is only commercially available in its final form, trade secret protection may be the best form. The most important thing to remember is that a company must follow a strict set of requirements to keep the trade secret confidential.
The last patent type protection could be through a Utility Patent. A Utility Patent can be issued for any type of plant showing its utility. These are issued by the USPTO. Seeking and obtaining a Utility Patent is expensive and complex.
In addition to Patent Protection, breeders may seek Contractual Agreements restricting the use of the clones (i.e. a material use agreement). The parameters that a breeder wishes to craft can essentially be crafted into the language of any type of agreement that is drafted to memorialize the relationship and terms between the parties.
A few broad-stroke items to keep in mind with regard to patents particularly relative to the patenting of cannabis strains and the like: First, is the passage of the America Invents Act which among other changes allowed for the U.S. to transition from a First-to-Invent patent system to a system where priority is given to the first inventor to file a patent application. Second, there are the potential bars based on different types of prior use.
Any discussion about the foregoing topic should necessarily include the question: Is it really good for the cannabis industry and its evolution? The dialogue moves out of one steeped in tradition, lure of trips through mountain passages, and potentially patient benefit or in search of higher quality and into connotations of business law and big businesses sweeping in to take over. It is an expensive process. It may be inevitable. In the meantime, protect yourself as best you can and as you see fit.